All-clear from virus fails to stop farms going up in smoke

January 31, 2002 Financial Times (London) by David White
The notice-board by the village pump at Sheepwash, in Devon, south-west England, proclaims the "wonderful news" about the end of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. The letter declaring the county free of the disease is more than two months old. But the trauma is far from over.

Almost a year after the first outbreak, Brian Jones' pig farm stands empty. So do the cattle and sheep pens at the market in nearby Hatherleigh, where livestock farmers and traders would congregate every Tuesday. Conditions were already hard: falling earnings, tougher rules. The disease "put almost the final nail in the coffin", says Mr Jones. "Farming is in disarray, to say the least. I can't think it can get any worse."

This part of Devon was one of the focal points in the spread of foot-and-mouth. The authorities established that it arrived when a local livestock dealer, owner of several farms, brought sheep from a market more than 600km away in the far north of England.

"He was actually spreading farmyard manure on my land, a short distance from my pig units," Mr Jones recalls. The 1,500 pigs Mr Jones was finishing for market had to be slaughtered and burnt. Argument about payment for the lengthy clean-up is still going on.

Mr Jones' few cows eventually went, too. From Sheepwash's hilltop position he could see the pyres of burning carcasses all down the valley. He is thinking about going into something else - trees, perhaps - outside food production.

Earlier this month, the last "at risk" area in England was cleared and the World Organisation for Animal Health put the UK back on the list of countries free of foot-and-mouth. But the epidemic has caused more damage than any other in modern times. The first of three main government inquiries to report its findings this week described the farming industry as "unsustainable in every sense" and called for radical changes in the way European Union subsidies were spent.

More than 4m animals, mostly sheep, were destroyed in the epidemic, either because one of the herd had the disease, or a neighbour's herd had it, or because it was suspected. A further 2m were slaughtered in a welfare scheme for animals that could not be fed or sold because of restrictions on movements. Many lambs and calves were not counted in the figures.

The scale of destruction has been stunning in its apparent disproportion: all to protect the UK's export status from a virus that poses negligible risk to humans and which animals, left to themselves, usually get over. Farming has shrunk to 1 per cent of Britain's economy. Dairy and beef farms were already hit by the BSE "mad cow" crisis in the mid-1990s. A trend towards fewer, bigger farms is now accelerating.

Food, transport, retail and tourism-related businesses have also suffered. In Sheepwash, a village shop and post office was reopened in the midst of the epidemic, a valiant community effort in desperate times. But Mr Jones admits: "It's been difficult to keep the village going."

In comments submitted to an official Devon inquiry, one woman said it was like the second world war. A clergyman described the experience as "almost like having mud shovelled on your head".

The government-ordered cull involved almost 400,000 animals in the county, one of the worst-affected areas. Many farmers have yet to decide whether it is worthwhile to re-stock. But those who had herds slaughtered and received compensation often fared better than others, mired in restrictions and red tape.

"It'll take a lot to be back to normal," says Carol Timms, at nearby Inwardleigh.

"Everybody here was scared witless," she says. Her husband Clive spent seven weeks without leaving the farm. They managed to keep their cattle and sheep, but income from the farm stopped. Mrs Timms was trying to develop a bed-and-breakfast business, but it was seasonal at best, and has had no customers since October 2000. She works at a pub to pay for groceries. An agricultural charity gave some money but none has come from the government. She reckons family income last year would not come to Pounds 5,000 (Dollars 7,000), well below the national minimum wage.

Licensing and hygiene rules have raised the cost of taking animals to slaughter or buying new ones. "If we lose a calf we can't replace it," she says.

But she cannot envisage leaving the farm, in her family for four generations. "The majority of the people around here have lived here a long, long time. Farming is not a job, it's a way of life. It's all very fine saying, 'Do something else'. They don't know anything else. They tell me to diversify. I've tried that. But there's nobody trying to help me."

Resentment and distrust of the government, already well rooted, has grown. There is also bitterness about the gains some made from the Pounds 2.7bn of government compensation and handouts - big farmers, dealers, vets, equipment hire companies - and the amount of money wasted. Huge burial pits prepared at nearby Ash Moor were never used. The weekly cost of maintaining them is twice Mrs Timms' bank debt.

Outside Sheepwash, Marilyn and Tony Johns have devoted their lives to building up an isolated farm, with 200 acres (80 hectares), sheep and a small dairy herd. "This was our dream," says Mrs Johns, a former teacher.

The crisis left them stranded among empty fields. "You can see about 8,000 acres, and we were the only ones left. It was so eerie: not a sound, not a light anywhere."

They sold half their sheep under the welfare scheme, but got no other support. She sees no hope of recovery. Whatever policies the EU has for keeping people on the land, they have not reached here. "For us there's no way forward," she says. "We're finished now."

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